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As Islamic fundamentalism rises in Egypt, government feels heat

Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt, long kept at bay, is on the rise. This trend has pitted fundamentalists, who want to make Islamic law the law of the land, against the government of President Hosni Mubarak, which seeks to maintain the status quo.

``The force of Islamic rule is on the street,'' says Prof. Ali Dessouki. ``We're seeing the politicking now. The Islamicists are showing their political muscle. They're asking for immediate implementation of Sharia [Islamic law].''

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It is not yet clear, however, whether Islamic activists can mobilize the religious masses to push for Islamic law. If they can, they could apply enough pressure to force the government to acquiesce to their demands. Nearly 90 percent of Egypt's 48 million people are Muslims, most of them of the Sunni sect.

The first round between the government and the fundamentalists took place last month, when the government derailed a move for the immediate implementation of Sharia. The government agreed to a parliamentary debate, but engineered a vote against Sharia. Instead, the parliament voted for a more moderate course to continue a review of existing laws in order to weed out non-Islamic elements.

However, this step has not deterred the fundamentalists. The next round is scheduled for today. Fundamentalists have called for a march for Sharia from the Nur Mosque in central Cairo to the presidential palace. The Interior Ministry has warned that it will ``deal firmly'' with such a demonstration.

In the last five years, visible signs of religious practice in Egypt have been growing.

According to academics, economic frustrations and obstacles to mobility brought Egyptians a feeling that there were no practical solutions to life's problems. Religion was the only outlet. The wholesale onslaught of Western culture brought confusion and a backlash which strengthened the attraction of Islam. Buoyed by this trend, the fundamentalists began to move for Sharia, leading to May's parliamentary debate.

Sharia was set down in the Koran, the sacred book of the Muslims, nearly 1,300 years ago. It prescribes codes of behavior in all walks of life. Among other things, imposing Sharia would mean a ban on alcohol, prohibit interest on bank loans, legislate the wearing of head coverings for women, and prescribe punishments for various crimes.

Sharia is interpreted somewhat liberally by moderate Islamicists, who hold that the full weight of the law should be applied only in the best of all possible worlds. They say punishments like amputation of a hand for theft should only be applied when hunger is no longer a factor in Egypt and everyone has enough to eat. They add that Egypt's Christian minorities would be protected and that implementing Sharia would not imply a break with the West.

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The Egyptian government insists that the bulk of existing laws already conform with Sharia. Nevertheless, says Professor Dessouki, ``the implementation of Sharia would mean a major upheaval in the legal system.''

Sharia would be a big change for Cairo where alcohol flows freely, gambling is legal, and Eastern and Western ways fuse in a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Sharia could cost Egypt a good share of its income from tourism.

Many intellectuals say they would leave the country as Sharia could affect Egypt's political and economic course and its relations with the West. These are developments that the government, seeking stability, fears.

``The government's strategy,'' says a government official, ``is to properly handle the economic problem of the country. If there's a peace process [with Israel] and a breakthrough in the economy, the Islamic trend will fade away.''

So far, the government's policy has been to propose moderate concessions to the fundamentalists, as in May, to relieve the pressure.

Already, alcohol has been banned on Egypt Air, the national carrier. The government is enforcing a law that forbids restaurants from serving alcohol to Egyptians during the holy month of Ramadan.

The recent repeal of the ``Jihan personal status law,'' which gave women the right to divorce if their husbands took a second wife, can also be seen as a concession.

The Egyptian official says that a return to religion and growth in fundamentalism is tied to the perception of a foreign intruder or threat to Egypt. Such threats were felt with the rise of Zionism in Palestine and in the wake of the war between Israel and Egypt in 1967. Many Egyptians perceived that defeat as a sign that God had punished them for straying from his law.

Former President Gamal Abdel Nasser had kept fundamentalism in check, partly by jailing many fundamentalists.

``President [Anwar] Sadat released those Islamic forces,'' Dessouki says.

President Sadat's plan was for Egypt to shift away from the Soviet Union toward the West. To achieve this change peacefully, he calculated that he would have to reduce the power of leftists in the news media, on campuses, and in trade associations.

In an effort to curb and counterbalance leftist strength, Sadat fostered Islamic trends. He released jailed fundamentalists who eventually gained positions of authority on campuses and in professional associations. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by a group of Muslim extremists.

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